Book review: X'ed Out by Charles Burns

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      Published by Pantheon Books, 56 pp, $22.95, hardcover

      It's hard to know exactly what to make of X'ed Out. Not because the story is weird and a little difficult to follow (it is, but more about that later), but because its creator and its publisher are sending mixed signals about what this 56-page book represents.

      The Pantheon Books website promises that X'ed Out is "the first volume of an epic masterpiece of graphic fiction". Its writer and artist, Charles Burns, meanwhile, has been telling interviewers that it is indeed the first part of something, but he says the total page count will be about 100—meaning that we're already halfway through.

      While I can understand his reluctance to commit to another sprawling, multi-volume saga after finishing Black Hole—the teen-mutant story that took him a decade and over 350 pages to tell—I can't help but hope for more from Burns. Based on this first chapter, X'ed Out has the potential to match Black Hole's status as a revered contemporary classic.

      The story revolves around Doug, a young man who has awoken with a bandaged head injury. We don't know how we got it, but the Polaroids in his photo album trigger flashback sequences in which the would-be avant-garde artiste ditches his boring girlfriend and takes up with Sarah, a beautiful photographer who clearly has some dark secrets.

      But that's only half the story. Doug has dreams in which a more cartoonish-looking version of himself wanders through a bizarre world that seems inspired in equal measure by the Tangier of Naked Lunch and the Mos Eisley spaceport from Star Wars. There he encounters green-skinned lizard men, his own dying father, and another version of Sarah, who seems destined to be a breeder for the greenies.

      X'ed Out is in full colour, which is a rarity for Burns, whose drawing has always been immediately identifiable by its meticulous black brushstrokes. That's still the case here, but the addition of flat colours gives it an aesthetic similarity to Hergé's Tintin books, an influence also suggested by the appearance of Doug's dream self, and a few more subtle visual clues.

      And that's about all I can tell you about this chapter, other than that I hope it's the first of many.